Wa‘a Wednesday: Aotearoa experience transforms KS learners of today and tomorrow

Feb. 18, 2015

Contributed by Pakalani Bello

Wa‘a Wednesdays is a series of KSOnline stories about the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage and its relationship to Kamehameha Schools, the education sponsor of the voyage. Today’s piece recollects part of the recent journey taken by a delegation of KS students and staffers to Aotearoa, to reconnect with their ancestral Polynesian heritage.

The story continues as a delegation of KS students and staffers engage Māori schools to represent the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage as members of Ngāti Ruawāhia, the 6th Tribe of Te Tai Tokerau, Aotearoa (New Zealand)...

As the KS Ngāti Ruawāhia delegation sat quietly in the carved meeting house at Te Puia in the Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley in Rotorua, they were challenged by a Māori tohunga  (highly skilled specialist) to think about how to transmit ancestral knowledge from a thousand years ago to future generations living 200 years from now.

“The Internet has a lot of (cultural) information,” said master carver James Rickard of the Māori Arts and Crafts Institute.  “But that isn’t knowledge. How we use information comes from our ancestors – that makes it knowledge. Google is not my tupuna (ancestor)!”

Children’s Cultural Identity
Such thought-provoking insights revealed themselves everywhere as the KS delegation visited schools and institutions for cultural and educational exchange. 

The principal of Paihia School, a public elementary school in the mainstream New Zealand education system, chose to speak to her students in Māori even though many students are not Māori and it is neither an immersion nor a bilingual school.

The result? “A strong unified sense of Māori identity among students and teachers” said Ekela Kaniaupio-Crozier, cultural protocol officer at KS Maui. 

At Nawton Primary in Waikato, students are divided into three tracks: English, bilingual, and immersion which are indicated on their uniforms – yet they all mix and mingle throughout the day like one extended family. 

After the KS students shared a set of Hawaiian songs and dances, a group of children between the ages of 8 and 12 years old responded with soulful voices that resonated with an ancestral depth far beyond their years – it was emotional and moving. 

“You can just feel it, they aren’t shy or embarrassed, they totally give it their all” remarked Kaleo Trinidad, KS Kapālama Hawaiian Ensemble director. “They know who they are at such a young age” added Chris Blake, KS Kapālama High School Science Department head.

Indigenous Character and Pride
The KS delegation was honored to learn that the principal of Bay of Islands College, a mainstream public high school, modified the entire school’s exam schedule to ensure they could welcome their visiting whānau (family) from Kamehameha with full ceremony.

The ceremony included the wero (ritualized warrior challenges), whaikōrero (formal oratory) by teachers and students, and a hāngī, a feast of traditional Māori food prepared from scratch by the students themselves.

When we asked about student demographics, it was discretely shared that they had an at-risk population reflecting low socio-economic conditions. 

“And yet, in our view the school seemed to glow with the richness of Māori character and pride” said Kale Kauʻi, KS Kapālama character education coordinator. Their students exhibited graciousness, maturity, and self-confidence that transcended material wealth and pop culture’s preoccupation with the latest fashions and trendiest gadgets. 

“It was a pleasant surprise that they had been planning a trip to Hawaiʻi. It was such an honor to return the gesture of hospitality when they visited KS Kapālama this past December!” remarked Jamie Fong, manager of KS’ Kaʻiwakīloumoku Hawaiian Cultural Center.

Native Achievement and Professional Development
Kamehameha Schools has enjoyed a close relationship with Ngā Tai Ātea Wharekura, a Māori immersion school in Waikato. What’s extraordinary about Ngā Tai Ātea is that their achievement scores are remarkably high, so high that they’ve outscored even the top English-speaking mainstream schools in New Zealand – and they do it in Māori. 

Their school motto, “E puta ki Taiātea!” means “Empowered by our Past and Present, to lead in the Future!” KS teachers sat with fellow Māori educators and exchanged ideas on education philosophy, assessment models, discipline, learning theory and passion projects. 

All were deeply inspired by the intense Māori-Hawaiian dialogue and feel there should be more investment in professional development and cultural exchanges with Māori and others who have a shared Polynesian/indigenous heritage, similar historical trauma, and a common vision of promising outcomes to uplift youth of the next generation.

Mother Tongue, Key to Success
“Our students were greatly affected by the ease with which their students spoke Māori,” observed Hoʻokahua Cultural Specialist Kapalai de Silva.

“Fluency in their native tongue did not seem like a burden, a chore, or a source of discomfort. No matter their age, ethnic background, or economic status, they knew it; and not just on a surface level. When they spoke, it sounded as if their mouths were made for that language alone.  It is truly their native tongue, and what’s more, it isn’t a big deal to them. It’s normal, and almost expected.”

Such language and cultural expectations appear to be the norm not only at K-12 schools, but also at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, one of the world’s largest indigenous university systems. The KS delegation explored the Māori education pipeline and learned how they view post-secondary success.

“Essentially, they have identified their gaps and built culture-based bridges to facilitate an effective network of career paths inclusive of New Zealand’s business and political sectors” said KS Vice President of Cultural Affairs Randie Fong.

“And, as our students and teachers saw for themselves, that same gutsy innovation was reflected at Māori TV, a government-subsidized, culture-based television station that unapologetically projects empowering messages and images of Māori via mainstream media.”

The Strategic Impact of Hawaiian Identity
Within days of returning to the classroom the KS Kapālama grade five kumu and grades three through six ʻōlelo a moʻomeheu Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language and history) kumu developed seven standards-based WEO-integrated lesson plans (culture-based Working Exit Outcomes) that were implemented to 368 third, fourth and fifth grade haumāna.

“It was such an educationally rich experience and we were grateful to bring that richness directly to our students!” said Snowbird Bento, KS Kapālama Elementary School kumu ‘ōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language teacher.)

KS Kapālama Elementary School Curriculum Coordinator Chelsea Keehne developed a way to share the group’s experience with learners back home during the Aotearoa visit. “While traveling, we organized a series of Google Hangouts which enabled our learners back home to participate in the journey as members of the Ngāti Ruawāhia tribe.”

Two weeks after the group’s return, the delegation convened to debrief its experiences.

“The group drafted a set of recommendations to help Kamehameha Schools more fully transform as a kula Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian school) and a Native Hawaiian organization” explains Kealiʻi Akina, KS Hawaiʻi Hawaiian culture and history teacher. 

Assuming their recommendations would be implemented, students were asked to envision the changes they’d expect to see, hear, and touch at Kamehameha in the year 2020. This enabled students to better appreciate the organization-wide effort behind KS’ Strategic Plan 2020, and how they might contribute to and influence the Kamehameha of the future.

Tour administrator and KS Kapālama High School Principal Julian Ako reflects on the experience: “Everyone returned transformed in some way and better connected to our own identities as kānaka maoli (native people) . The challenge now is to take what we learned and apply it in our personal lives as well as to further transform Kamehameha as a Hawaiian organization.”

The student body at Nawton Primary dances a waiata-a-ringa (action song) praising the beauty and history of their region of Waikato.

Students of Ngā Tai Ātea Wharekura dance “E Noho Tuheitia,” an action song in honor of the current Māori king.

Everyone returned transformed in some way and better connected to our own identities as kānaka maoli (native people). The challenge now is to take what we learned and apply it in our personal lives as well as to further transform Kamehameha as a Hawaiian organization.
Julian Ako, KS Kapālama High School Principal